By Dr. Abdul Ruff
(Important briefs: In 1962, International court awards temple to Cambodia (Kampuchea), but surrounding land remains undesignated; 1970s-1990s: Khmer Rouge guerrillas occupy site; 2001-2002: Thai troops block access over water row; July 2008: Unesco lists temple as a World Heritage Site; July 2008: Thai FM quits after court rules he violated constitution for backing Cambodia’s Unesco bid; July 2008: Both sides move troops to temple area; August 2008: Troops withdrawn after high-level talks; October 2008: Fighting erupts around temple area).
Even as the domestic crisis is still looming large in Thailand, there have been some rays of light over resolving the border crisis with its neighbor Cambodia. Thailand and Cambodia have at long last agreed to resolve a border dispute peacefully “for the sake of their neighborliness. More than 1,000 troops have been engaged in a stand-off at the ancient site last year for over month. Tensions have recently been rekindled, and last week erupted into open combat. Three Cambodian and one Thai soldier died in exchanges of fire. Several Cambodian soldiers have been killed recently in an exchange of gunfire with Thai troops along a disputed section of their border. The clash, near the ancient Preah Vihear temple, has prompted Thailand to urge its nationals to leave Cambodia. Tension has been high since July, when hundreds of soldiers on both sides faced off metres apart. Both sides have said they want to find a peaceful solution and will hold talks to discuss the conflict. Accordingly, only a small contingent from each side would remain at Preah Vihear temple.
Senior military officials on both sides echoed the pledge to reduce tensions as they met in Siem Reap in northern Cambodia last year. Both are sides are “committed to exercising their utmost restraint to avoid confrontation or armed clashes”, said Cambodian regional army commander Maj Gen Chea Mon. The two sides had agreed to joint border patrols to defuse tensions, but, it appears, these have not materialized. Mutual suspicions are harming the efforts to find any credible solution.
The demarcation of land around Preah Vihear temple on the countries’ border has never been clearly settled. Disputes between the two countries date back centuries when the Thai and Khmer monarchs fought each other for territory and power. The stand-off between the two countries centres on 1.8 square miles (4.6 sq km) of scrub near the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, which sits on a jungle-clad escarpment dividing the countries. The temple is only accessible from Thailand and the area around it is heavily mined – a legacy of Cambodia‘s long war against the Khmer Rouge guerrillas. The decision by Unesco in June to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site reignited lingering nationalist tensions over unresolved border disputes between the two countries.
The Preah Vihear temple has been the subject of often rancorous debate within Cambodia and Thailand and between the two nations since the very late 19th century. The temple was built during the 9th and 10th centuries by the Khmer Empire. As the empire reached its zenith and began a slow decline, the Ayutthaya Kingdom began its climb to the modern-day state of Thailand.
The recent 2008 Cambodian-Thai stand-off between Cambodia and Thailand began in June 2008 as the latest round of a century-long dispute involving the area surrouding the 11th-century Preah Vihear Temple, located between the Kantharalak district (amphoe) in the Sisaket province of Northeastern Thailand and the Choam Khsant district in the Preah Vihear province of northern Cambodia. Thailand claims that demarcation has not yet been completed for the external parts of the area judged by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962. The dispute has now extended westwards to the Ta Moan Thom complex between the Thai Surin province and the Cambodian Oddar Meancheay province. Furthermore, historians and scholars are expecting that this stand-off will be extended further to the west to the 11th-century Sdok Kok Thom Temple, currently located in the boundary of the Aranyaprathet district in the Sa Kaeo province of eastern Thailand.
The decision by the UN in June2008 to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site reignited lingering tensions. An international court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but land surrounding it remains the subject of rival territorial claims. In 2003, the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was torched by rioters angry over the alleged comments of a Thai actress who said that the Angkor Wat temple complex should be returned to Thailand.
Thailand and Cambodia both still claim they own the area around the temple, which recently became a Unesco World Heritage site. Officials from both countries have claimed the other side fired first. Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said the fighting was “small scale” and that he was committed to reaching a settlement over the issue with Cambodia, which he described as “a good neighbor”. After fighting broke out, Thailand alerted air force jets and readied transport planes to evacuate Thai nationals from Cambodia.
There have routine fights on the borders over the disputed site. The military stand-off began in July when Cambodian troops detained three Thai protesters who had entered the site illegally. More than 1,000 soldiers from both countries moved into the area, digging trenches into the rough terrain around the temple. As the result of the recurring tensions, both keep enhancing the military budget at the cost of common men.
In August, military personnel agreed to withdraw most of the troops from the area but in early October, Cambodia claimed that Thai troops had returned. While Cambodia asked the Thai authorities to with forces form Cambodia, Thailand had denied that its troops ever entered Cambodian territory. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to turn the area into a “death zone” if the Thai troops did not withdraw. Such kinds of standoffs have been regular. The two countries have held several rounds of talks but have so far failed to reach a settlement.
Bilateral talks on the issue were held on 24 October 2008 on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe summit (Asem) in Beijing. Foreign ministers from the two countries spoke to reporters after the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Somchai Wongsawat, held talks earlier.. Active diplomacy has taken precedence over the usual angry rhetoric. “We are not just neighbors, we are very good friends indeed,” Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornwiwat said. Hun Sen said the incident that already happened is not the kind that both countries want. It happened instantly. That was uncontrollable at the time.” Sompong added that the two sides had been advised to avoid confrontation. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said: “What happened between us we have to solve peacefully, amicably, for the sake of our neighborliness.”
Post Script: Forward Move
At long last Cambodia and Thailand have reached a deal to withdraw most of their troops from territory both claim at a hill-top temple, following an agreement reached at a meeting of military officers from the two countries on 14 October. The decision to resolve a border dispute Thai-Cambodia dispute peacefully remains a major break though but the implementation of the decision with follow-up actions is yet to begin quite earnestly.
Both Thailand and Cambodia are part of Asean and the member states, with a view to encouraging multi-trade mechanisms in the region, are also trying to help resolve the crisis. As the biggest Asean member country, Indonesia sees a role to help resolve conflict. AFP reported that Thailand and Cambodia on Thursday agreed to joint patrols of disputed border areas after deadly clashes, but made little progress toward resolving their long-standing territorial spat.
Both countries, however, feel that there could be no quick resolution to the problem. It seems Thailand‘s domestic political situation could prove a distraction – and Cambodia indicated it was not expecting a swift resolution. Since the issue stirs intense nationalist passions on both sides, and an army recruitment drive in border areas has been over-subscribed, the issue calls for more strenuous efforts for reliable resolution.